Good vs Bad: Nyjer vs Thistle I often hear people tell me that, while they love goldfinches, they don’t want a yard full of thistle weeds, so they refuse to purchase nyjer. Nyjer (also spelled Thistle seed is popular, but if you fill your feeders with it, what birds will visit? Learn which familiar birds eat Nyjer seed.
Good vs Bad: Nyjer vs Thistle
I often hear people tell me that, while they love goldfinches, they don’t want a yard full of thistle weeds, so they refuse to purchase nyjer. Nyjer (also spelled Nyger or Niger) is often mistakenly called Thistle, but there is a difference between the two!
Years ago, when I first started feeding wild birds, I purchased my seed in inexpensive bags (from a big box store, sad to say) that would “attract a variety of colorful birds”. I heard that goldfinches liked thistle, so I returned to the discount store and picked up the least expensive bag of thistle I could find. I spent the next decade trying to rid my lawn of thistle plants and was only able to successfully have a thistle-free lawn by moving to a new neighborhood. I know now that I can feel confident that feeding true Nyjer will not prevent me from enjoying a barefoot summer in my backyard.
Nyjer is an oilseed that is high in protein, fiber, and fat. This makes it highly desirable for feeding birds in the winter. Goldfinches aren’t the only birds that flock to feeders filled with Nyjer. If you make the smart decision and choose to feed nyjer, you can also expect to get sparrows, pine siskins, house finches, redpoll, and purple finches at your bird feeder.
Nyjer was trademarked by the Wild Bird Feeding Agency. Nyjer is native to Ethiopia and does not grow in North America. This seed is commonly harvested in Africa, India, Indonesia, and other parts of Southeast Asia. It is an expensive seed since it must be picked by hand, sterilized by intense heat to prevent germination, and then imported.
Thistle, on the other hand, is a noxious weed. Birds love it since, like Nyjer, thistle seed has high protein and fat content. However, the prickly leaves, stems, and spiny areas beneath the flower, make it highly undesirable in residential lawns.
So how, then, do you tell the difference between the two? By looking at the seeds? In actuality, most people cannot tell the difference by visually observing the seeds. In order to be sure that your seeds are Nyjer and not thistle:
- Avoid cheap seed – it is probably either thistle or expired
at a reputable feed store, such as Cockatoo Creations, rather than a big box discount store
- Avoid discount seed mixes
- Read the label to ensure that the origin of the seeds is listed. Most goldfinch food purchased at the local feed store comes from Myanmar (formerly Burma), Singapore, or Ethiopia.
Nyjer spoils quickly, so you should only purchase a small quantity at a time.
Now that you’ve re-thought feeding Nyjer, you’re probably ready to give it a try in one of our tube feeders. I look forward to seeing pictures of the beautiful birds you are able to attract as a result!
Birds That Eat Nyjer – Seed-Eating Birds
Melissa Mayntz is a bird expert, certified Master Naturalist, writer, and author with over three decades of experience. She’s published in several national magazines, including National Wildlife Magazine, Bird Watcher’s Digest, and WildBird Magazine. Melissa has studied hundreds of bird species around the world, traveling to Mexico, Central America, the Caribbean, the central Pacific, the Middle East, and more on birding expeditions.
The Spruce / Adrienne Legault
Nyjer seed—also commonly known as niger or thistle seed—is popular with many backyard bird species, particularly seed-eating birds and winter finches. Knowing which birds eat Nyjer can help birders choose the best birdseed and appropriate feeders for their backyard flock.
Nyjer is a small, thin, black seed from the African yellow daisy (Guizotia abyssinica). Though it is not related to the thistle plant, Nyjer is often referred to casually as “thistle seed.” High in oil, it is a nutritious source of energy for backyard birds and is one of the most popular types of birdseed. Depending on crops, import prices, and retailer options, however, it can also be one of the most expensive birdseeds. To lower the cost, many backyard birders prefer to offer Nyjer in limited quantities or will choose specialized feeders to ensure the seed is not accidentally spilled and wasted. Nyjer is also often found in finch mix or canary birdseed blends, often with sunflower chips or small millet seeds that also appeal to the birds that eat Nyjer. Because these mixes have smaller proportions of Nyjer, they are often less expensive than pure thistle seed.
Bird Species That Eat Nyjer
Birds that prefer Nyjer are seed-eating bird species. They typically have smaller, sharply-pointed bills that can easily manipulate such tiny seeds to crack shells and extract the rich seeds. Many Nyjer-loving birds are also called clinging birds because of their habit of acrobatically clinging to the sides of feeders rather than perching while feeding, and many of them can even eat upside down. These foraging habits help them feed on the natural seeds of flowers, which could be at unusual angles or waving in the wind when the birds are eating. Still, other bird species that feed on Nyjer are ground-feeding birds that will forage in leaf litter after flowers have shed their seeds. These larger seed-eating birds will also gather beneath specialized Nyjer feeders and sift through discarded shells for any seeds that have been spilled.
The most popular birds that eat Nyjer include the following:
Nyjer is a popular seed with many other finches, sparrows, doves, towhees, quail, and buntings. Even unexpected birds may try a bite of Nyjer when it is offered, and woodpeckers, thrushes, chickadees, and other birds have been spotted snacking at thistle seed feeders.
When Nyjer Isn’t Necessary
While this seed has relatively wide appeal in the backyard, some birds won’t give it a second glance. Orioles, waxwings, and other strongly frugivorous species will not pay any attention to Nyjer, and nectar-loving birds such as hummingbirds will also ignore a Nyjer feeder. Birds with larger, less adept bills such as cardinals, starlings, and grosbeaks cannot easily munch on thistle seed, and they are more likely to use other feeders and try other seeds instead. If any of these are the types of birds a backyard birder wants to attract, a Nyjer feeder is not necessary.
Even if there are plenty of finches visiting the feeders, they may forsake a Nyjer feeder if there are abundant natural foods available instead. If the backyard landscaping includes plentiful seed-bearing flowers for birds, an extra feeder may be ignored until the natural seed supplies are exhausted. In these cases, backyard birders often take down Nyjer feeders in late summer and fall when natural seeds are plentiful, but those feeders will be welcome and popular from late fall through early summer.
Attracting Birds With Nyjer
To attract birds by offering Nyjer, select appropriate bird feeders that have small mesh or tiny feeding ports to release the seed without spilling. Either soft mesh sock-style feeders or more durable metal mesh feeders can be suitable. For many birders, offering Nyjer in the winter is the best option, as many seed-eating birds are year-round residents but natural seed supplies are scarce in winter, so thistle seed feeders will be more popular. Birders who have not offered Nyjer before may choose mixed seed that includes Nyjer first to help the birds get accustomed to the new seed. Tricks to attract birds to a new feeder can also be useful for introducing birds to Nyjer.
Many birds eat Nyjer, and adding this nutritious, high-energy seed to a backyard buffet can attract a range of finches, sparrows, and other seed-loving birds to the yard.